The Once and Future Witches
Alix E. Harrow
I’m back on my witch shit, and let me tell you: this book was fantastic. I was blown away by the beautiful writing and the powerful message behind the story. The Once and Future Witches isn’t just a book about the tales of witchcraft, but a book about what it means to be a woman fighting for your rights. It was a feminist masterpiece that really pointed out what feminism means at its core: not just the fight for women’s rights, but the fight for rights for EVERYONE, the inclusion of all identities and race. As someone who pays a lot of attention to politics, I truly enjoyed this book.
The story follows three sisters, Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth, and James Juniper, as they meet up in New Salem by happenstance in 1893. The sisters had a fall out seven years prior; details are sprinkled throughout the book hinting at what actually happened between them, but it wasn’t good. The girls are witches who learned spells, sayings, and charms from their grandmother when they were younger, but witchcraft is illegal during this time… especially in a place as uptight and god fearing as New Salem. After witnessing a Suffrage Rally, Juniper decides that she wants to fight for the right to vote and fight for the right to bring witchcraft back into the world; those things go hand in hand, right? Right. However, she is derailed when she discovers that the Women’s Union of New Salem (the union supposedly fighting for voting rights), does not condone witchcraft and is really only for the privileged, rich white women of New Salem. Determined, Juniper and her sisters form the Sisters of Avalon, and they rally together to prove that witchcraft isn’t a sin and women have the right to speak their minds through their vote. Though they form quite a strong union, they soon find out that more than just prejudice and hatred fights against their rights. A dark and powerful magic stands between them.
This book had incredible female representation. While the three sisters were symbolic as The Maiden, The Mother, and The Crone, they stood for so much more. Bella, who is a lesbian, suffered through disgusting forms of torture by nuns as they tried to “convert her”. She was so traumatized that she thought her penance (so to speak) would be to live a solitary life as a librarian, keeping quiet and out of sight (the Crone). She had a lot of internalized trauma to work through, and it was so heartwarming to watch her finally come to embrace the fact that she can love who she loves as she grows in her relationship with Cleo Quinn, a black reporter for the black newspaper in New Salem. Agnes told a different story, one of abortion and the right to choose to become a mother. Working in the sweat shop factory in town, she made the difficult decision for herself to raise her baby by herself when she got pregnant. She didn’t need to marry the man, and it was her choice to fight for the right to keep her baby too, even though the city would try to take it away from her. When she eventually meets a man (literally the only man in this story worth a damn), he worships the ground she walks on and always respects her choice. We stan a respectful king. Fellas, just follow after Mr. August Lee… it’s literally not that hard. While each of the girls suffered under their alcoholic and assaulting father, Juniper was left with him alone for seven years after their father sent Agnes and Bella away. She grew resentful of her sisters, though each of them was misunderstood by the other, and she eventually killed her father after he tried to get handsy with her. In his will, her father didn’t even leave her his farm; instead, he gave it to her male “dumbshit” cousin (ugh, men *gag*).
If you couldn’t tell, the representation in this book was ah-mazing… and that’s just within the three main characters. There was so much more across all of the women in the story. One thing I especially loved was how Alix E. Harrow focused on the historical fact that the Women’s Suffrage movement had some racist and classist leaders. At the ripe age of 25, I’ll admit that I didn’t really understand this until about two years ago. In school, we all learned about the Suffrage movement: we all saw the women in their beautiful dresses and feathered hats, the banners across their chests, proudly storming about with their signs. Great. What our world class education system (HEAVY sarcasm in case you missed it) tried to erase was the fact that these women were rich and they were white; they could afford to rally, to pay their dues to be a “member” of their movement, and they excluded women of color from their movement. Now I’m generalizing; there are examples of women who fought for all equality. But the reality was that it was very divided, and I’m so glad this division was represented in this book. Because what the story touched on was that it was the hardworking women, the black women, women of color, trans women, single mothers, working mothers, and witches who fought the hard fight. The dirty fight.
And that fight is still not over. We can’t stop fighting. It seems unfathomable that men used to burn women at the stake in fear of them, yet that is literally what happened. Women throughout history have been gaslit, pushed to the side, stripped of their rights as human beings, enslaved, and walked all over. Especially women of color. Misogyny runs deep in the foundations of our society, and it goes so much deeper than the right to vote… which is powerful, but until all women feel safe, until men realize the point isn’t “not all men”, it is far from over.